Joel Meets Brad Thomas - GM Silver Dollar City

Interview with Silver Dollar City's Brad Thomas

Joel Meets Brad Thomas - GM Silver Dollar CityWhile I was at Silver Dollar City, I had the chance to interview Brad Thomas. He’s the General Manager of the Branson, Missouri park. I wanted to learn more about Silver Dollar City and also gain insight into how Outlaw Run came to be. It was great to get the chance to sit down with him.

Here’s part 1 of our interview including background on Silver Dollar City and the research process leading up to Outlaw Run, a roller coaster that was just won the Golden Ticket Award for Best New Ride of 2013.

Silver Dollar City – An 1880’s-themed Mining Town with Something for Everyone

Joel – What would you tell people about Silver Dollar City?

Brad – Silver Dollar City is an overall immersive experience which is different than an amusement park that may not have any theme or may have a very thin layer.

Silver Dollar City is themed after an 1880’s-themed mining town. We take that story throughout the entire city. We’re the Home of American Craftsmanship and you can see candy-making at its best. We make some of the best peanut brittle and fudges that you can possibly imagine. You head down over the bridge and you get to experience glassblowers that are doing renowned artistry and celebrating the art of glass-making.

And just on the other side, you’ll find a mine train coaster from Arrow. But we tuck our rides into a valley. You can’t even see Thunderation from the streets of Silver Dollar City because we want to continue the experience of this 1880’s mining town. If you’re visiting Silver Dollar City wanting to ride rides, we’ve got lots of rides for you. If you’re wanting to experience Silver Dollar City for shows and craft demonstrations, we can fill your day with those shows and those festivals.

Wildfire at Silver Dollar City - Station and Loops
We also understand the fun of rides. We have Wildfire, our world-class B&M five inversion ride. You get on the top of that lift and you look down you can have a lot of fun looking at the Ozark Mountains. As long as your eyes are open. You also get to see the fingers of Table Rock Lake. You can see that on Powderkeg, our launch coaster as well as Outlaw Run. We love the natural beauty of the Ozarks.

We’re also known for our special events and our festivals and we realize that in the Spring, Empty Nesters are the most of Silver Dollar City’s visitation. So we target two significant festivals for those empty nester couples. One is World Class where we bring in acts from all over the World. They’re able to basically travel the World and eat different international foods and see different international performers and they don’t have the States. Then we have our Bluegrass and Barbecue Festival.

Then in the Summer we’re all about families and kids. 95% of the visitors that visit Silver Dollar City from the middle of May to the middle August, they’ve got a kid with them. And they are loving and exploring all of the rides. We’ve do special kids shows. So, Silver Dollar City changes by time of year.

A lot of folks do Christmas. No one does Christmas like Silver Dollar City. We don’t just outline the buildings, we light every plank of every building. We’ve got to start the first week of August and it takes us until the first of November to complete the lights. We’ve got a 5-story Christmas Tree in the town square that has 400,000 lights on that tree alone.

From a general perspective Silver Dollar City is very different. We offer great rides, fun rides, thrilling experiences, but we also have all of these other parts of the guest experience recognizing that folks use us differently based on their likes and their family.

Joel – What’s Silver Dollar City’s relationship with Celebration City?

Brad – Celebration City was owned and operated by us from 2003 until the end of 2008. At that time because it did not meet our expectations, we closed Celebration City. And at some point it will be a wonderful development on the west-end of Branson, but at this point, the park is closed.

Research That Led To Outlaw Run

Joel – Talk about the development. Did you have a certain type of ride in mind? Can you speak to whether you had a steel or wooden roller coaster in mind?

Brad – Going back for decades, we have a history and heritage of testing different concepts that we look to add at SDC. Whether it’s a show, whether it’s festival. We’ll add an entire new festival based on consumer research. We’ll ask folks who visit us if something sounds fun and motivational for them to visit. We’ll also ask people within our primary markets that don’t visit Silver Dollar City. Because the only way to get new visitors is to ask people who so far have chosen not to visit us. So we ask them if this show, if this festival, if this ride concept would cause them to get in their vehicles or get in a plane and come to Branson and visit Silver Dollar City.

About 2.5 years ago we started market research on a new ride for 2013. We believed that coming out of the recession that around 2013 would be a good time to make an investment into Silver Dollar City’s Plan. We tested several different attractions and they were more generic in description, but the wood coaster concept out-tested everything from the Silver Dollar City user and from those who are non-users of Silver Dollar City.

The piece that we used in that research that differentiated itself was that it would be a world-class wood coaster. We had a high bar. So when we described it as a world-class wood coaster, people said absolutely I would go to Silver Dollar City if you had a world-class wood coaster. So when we saw that research and knew that we were going to build a wood coaster, then came the process of finding who was going to build us that world-class wood coaster.

Joel – Then you had to narrow it down.

Brad – Exactly. So the way we look at our ride mix, Branson is a town of 10,000 folks. We are a resort community. People come from all over the nation and in some cases all over the World to visit us. These folks have traveled and seen other parks and had other life experiences. And they come here with expectations, but it takes them getting here. It’s not just a fifteen minute drive from their home to get to Silver Dollar City. We’re always looking for attractions, shows, and festivals that are so significant and such high quality that they say that it’s worth me going from St. Louis or Little Rock or Dallas or Chicago.
Outlaw Run Barrel Roll - Silver Dollar City - Riders
Rocky Mountain came back with the concept of Outlaw Run as we know it today. As we looked at the concept, which was very much the end product: World’s steepest drop on a wood coaster, 68 mph second fastest wood coaster, and the fact that we’re going to take you upside-down 3 times on a wood coaster. Those components start making that ride truly world-class.

So we ran our concept through a variety of coaster enthusiasts around the country. And asked, “If we build this ride, are you certain, that our promises would be met? If we do everything that Rocky Mountain says they’ll do?”

And the coaster community said “If you do that. That is a world-class wood coaster.”

Joel – I like the levels of research. I find it interesting, because I’m a marketer by day. It’s interesting who you targeted and who you decided to talk to first. And then you even went to the enthusiasts; obviously second. That makes perfect sense.

Take-Aways from Part 1 of the Interview

The biggest take-away was the insight into what it takes to successfully run a theme park. I think at times we questions decisions and think that we could do a better job, but after really getting into how much you have to understand your visitors, draw in new visitors, target, attract, and serve different audiences and stay consistent to your park’s heritage and theme, it doesn’t really look like a cake walk, does it?

Most of us know that rides aren’t chosen to be built a couple days before the bulldozers show up, but this again drives home the point that when we think we see causes and effects from one year to another, we may be wrong. Brad Thomas mentioned that plans for Outlaw Run started 2 and a half years before it opened.

I thought it was very interesting that the park asked enthusiasts what they thought of Outlaw Run’s concept. After getting a generic idea from the average visitor, they went the extra mile to ask the “experts” and make sure that they’d also get some buzz going from people like me? It makes me wonder how often parks do that.

Lastly, for people who have never been to Silver Dollar City. I’d say that it (and sister park Dollywood) are about on the level of a Busch Gardens park in terms of theming and that immersive experience that Brad spoke of. They’re both off the beaten path so to speak and not in locations you’re likely to just find yourself in, like Florida. But they are both well worth the trip.

I want to thank Brad Thomas for setting aside some time to speak with me. Check back soon for part 2 of this interview including more on Outlaw Run, the 2013 Golden Ticket Award Winner for Best New Ride.

For more on Outlaw Run, watch this must-see documentary on the ride and read my full Outlaw Run review. Image 3 courtesy of Silver Dollar City